RACE DAY AND START
I made sure to get to bed early the night before, with work to do in the morning plus carpooling to the track. I was at the track around 7:30 a.m. for a race that starts at 3 p.m. and goes 24 hours. I really love staying up for the duration of endurance races, but this schedule was leaving me to question how that would work out.
First on my agenda was Mazda's press conference to announce its new Le Mans LMP2 engine program. That went well. Then I was off to solidify my race action: finding my buddies, evaluating hospitality options, and wandering around. I found my friends from Motegi Racing – Jody, Jose and Jen – who were all with the AF Corse team.
AF Corse was a busy place as they had four cars entered in the race. We decided to watch the start of the race on the TVs in their garage itself, so we could see the action and hear the cars. There's nothing that sounds like it (or lack thereof, with the Audis).
I was surprised with how easygoing the garage was, as I expected everyone to get the boot. It resembled the pits/garage at Daytona's 24 hours. Every team does it differently, of course, Audi is completely shut off, but from what I could see the rest of the teams were pretty chill. I was in and out of a few garages and hospitality during the course of the race. I really enjoyed the action of pulling the car into the garage, although I know the team didn't. Watching the cars pit from the garage is always a treat and the teams were patient with the guests.
After the first hour, you ask, “What's next?” Where to watch? An attempt to reach the nether regions of the circuit didn't work, so the next option was hanging out in a couple more garages and hospitality. The first was Stefan Johansson (Gulf Racing Middle East) and his lovely girlfriend, Mecca, in their hospitality, but a TV was always nearby. Next up was back to AF Corse with Brian Vickers after his first ever stint racing here, and witnessing his debrief.
Shopping thereafter meant I spent too many euros on Steve McQueen-style Gulf gear, and I also stopped by Vanessa's (catering) to catch up and meet with my Mazda friends. Later, another new friend – Jules – welcomed me into Krohn Racing's suite, which was a total treat. The perfect and comfortable view also afforded a chance to see Audi, which was a couple garages down as well.
MORE RACING, AND MORE EXPLORING
You have to be careful because being in the paddock and hospitality can shield you from what the race really is about – the fans. I'm fascinated by how the rest of the fans entertain themselves at such a long race. I admittedly have my own interesting options but even so, I wanted more – Le Mans is all about MORE.
More shopping featured a very different quality, quantity and presentation than at races in the U.S. The layout of the shops was airy – not crowded. It was intermixed with corporate kiosks. The place that drove it home for me was the Rolex shop. Your typical “official race gear” wasn't so typical. The quality was better and the designs cleaner – to me, here's where European sensibilities came into play. It's usually an easy task for me to pass on race souvenirs. This time, the pocket book is hurting and my family is happier.
While the food and drink options were different, people's behavior after drinking wasn't so much. Having a large bar just for wine and cheese was fairly refreshing, as was the security to sweep in and reign in the drunks. The French have their food preferences – they like baked goods and bring them to the races.
At the midway, there's so much more than the iconic Ferris wheel. It also had multiple rides and games. The walk wasn't too bad from the paddock – a quick dive through the tunnel and you're there. The crowds were much smaller than I expected. I thought we'd have to fight our way there and stand in some nasty Disneyland or Indiana Jones-type queue. Nope. We walked right up for the tickets and got in line for a grand total of maybe 10 minutes. Maybe we picked a good time but, even so, a longer wait is very much worth it…
This year I rode the Ferris wheel at Daytona's Rolex 24. What a bummer that was. The line was long, the loading/unloading a joke and the ride was short. The views are there, of course, but when you get maybe five seconds to enjoy it, the overall impression is, boo.
Le Mans knows its Ferris wheel. It's a big one and you get to go round a couple times and with lots of stops to watch the race and take photos. You look right down the front stretch into the pits and the entrance to the pits. Racing happens there. At dusk and getting darker, the lights of the action were amazing, as were the lights of the circuit. With that in mind, I'd like to officially suggest London Eye-type hospitality suites.